Saturday, July 25, 2015

Mermin Book One: Out of Water

Out of Water is a whole lot of things at once. It's a monster story about a young critter than looks a lot like the Creature from the Black Lagoon encountering some children. It's a tale of fitting in at school, with a look at classroom and classmate dynamics. It's an action story about a lost prince and the elite squad sent to retrieve him. And it's also sort of a superhero slugfest. Also, there are a whole bunch of humorous bits, mostly verbal and situational ones like this one here:
Mermin is an amusing and enigmatic character. He is running from something and shares almost nothing about his background. Also, he is hiding the fact that he has an amazing array of abilities, including super strength and the ability to communicate telepathically with sea life. After saving them from a shark, he ingratiates himself into a trio of children, one of whom actually gets his family to shelter the little green guy. Mermin settles in and even goes to school with his new friend Pete, pretending to be his cousin. There, they all find themselves in the interesting and insightful world of elementary students like so:
I don't want to spoil too much, but there is a whole lot of backstory that Mermin does not tell but the reader finds out little by little. He is a merman from the land of Mer, and he seems to be a figure of some importance, but something happened that made him want to abandon his underwater life. I felt that the story was compelling enough, and even though there is much left unresolved at the end of this book (it literally ends with questions) there are two more volumes (with a fourth soon to be published) for those who want to follow his adventures. I know I felt a little disappointed that there was not more resolution in this book, but knowing there are more books that follow is good news for Mermin fans.

This book is the creation of Joey Weiser, a cartoonist who has published a few other books and mini-comics, including Tales of Unusual Circumstance, Cavemen in Space, and The Ride Home. He speaks more about his work on this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book range from positive to lukewarm. Diamond Bookshelf wrote,"The art is appropriately bold and cartoony, but also vibrant and easy to follow, and the coloring is very bright and eye catching." Publishers Weekly summed up, "The slapstick comedy, climactic battle scenes, and in-your-face cartooning add up to a story with the feel of an animated cartoon series, if not an especially ground-breaking one." Kirkus Reviews was not too enthusiastic about the book and suggested that "readers looking for a funny, bubble-gum comic with art vibrant as a Saturday-morning cartoon and action to match will find that this suffices."

Mermin Book One was published by Oni Press. You can purchase it online here. Weiser provides a preview of it here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

SuperMutant Magic Academy

SuperMutant Magic Academy contains an interesting array of familiar and unique attributes. It is set in a sort of Hogwarts, where students who have many different kinds of skills and abilities attend. They have strong, distinctive personalities, and they often clash, bicker, cavort, commiserate, and chitchat, as many of the adolescent students I have known do. Although they are often arcane and fantastical, the students are also utterly realistic.

This book contains multitudes, and what is most impressive, it does not really contain one single narrative until the end portion of the book; it consists of a myriad of one-page webcomic strips that, taken together, are a wide, wild tapestry of the school and its students. These strips are about all kinds of things, and some vary much tonally. Some focus on recurring characters and their interests, like Frances and Gemma, who are very into making and performing art:
Some of the strips are seemingly random, focusing on particularly exceptional students, such as the one with a dolphin head or this one who actually just seems to be a cat in a school uniform:
Others are about the goings-on of the school, seemingly typical events given a weird, comical twist:
Others are just about what seem like common adolescent behaviors, and they are quite observant and often biting:
All I can really say about all these episodes are that they are surreal, insightful, and more often than not hysterically funny. I know that this book is set in a total fantasy world, but these depictions of students seem more based in fact than fiction. At first I thought that this book was going to be pretty light and fluffy, but the more I read the more I realized it was an impressive and detailed piece of world building.

Writer/artist Jillian Tamaki is behind these antics. She is known for her collaborations with her cousin Mariko on the books Skim and This One Summer. She is a well established and celebrated artist, having received one of the highest distinctions for art in literature, the Caldecott Honor. She speaks more about her work on this book in this interview with the Onion AV Club as well as this one with School Library Journal.

All of the reviews I have read have been full of praise for this collection. Rachel Cooke commented, "The majority of its strips are sassy, mordantly funny and feel true in ways that most other depictions of teenage angst simply don’t." Etelka Lehoczky wrote that "each strip is an independent delight." Sean T. Collins simply called it "the best take on YA comics I’ve read in ages."

SuperMutant Magic Academy was published by Drawn & Quarterly. They provide a preview and much more here. You can keep up with any news or updates about the book and webcomic here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Divine

The Divine was inspired by God's Army, a group of Burmese dissidents led by twin 12-year-old boys, but it takes that seed of truth and spins it into a much broader and fantastic fiction that still manages to comment on contemporary issues. The plot follows Mark, an ex-military explosives expert from the US who is stuck in a crappy job, with a baby on the way and pressure to move on to better conditions. He gets contacted by his friend Jason to be a contractor on a lucrative mining job in the fictional southeast Asia country Quanlom. Soon, he finds himself surrounded by conflict and he is moved by the plight of the country's inhabitants, particularly the children who are caught up in the violence.

In this book, the dragons are both literal and figurative. Mark is astounded when he finds that two of these young soldiers he befriends can summon gigantic warriors and also control powerful, destructive supernatural forces. Jason is not so sympathetic, and much of this book is a debate/commentary on the nature of war and its consequences. Even though it is a work of fiction, it packs a powerful and realistic punch. There are a number of monsters in this book, and some of them are actually humans.

In discussing this interesting, gripping, and provocative tale, I have not even gotten to what I feel is the strongest part of this book, the artwork. Brothers Asaf and Tomer Hanuka have hit a home run with their expert depictions of human moments, frenetic action sequences, and broad vistas that call to mind classic Asian landscape paintings. The pages ripple with action, and I love how the coloring is used to convey mood with foreboding reds, soothing greens, and murky browns. As you can see in the splash page below, the art is wondrous to drink in.

Asaf is also known for his work on The Realist webcomic, and both brothers have impressive portfolios of commercial art work for major media outlets. Writer and filmmaker Boaz Lavie has written for many venues, and he is also known for his short film, The Lake. This interview with all the creators casts more light on their work on this book.

The reviews I have read of this book have been celebratory. Publishers Weekly called it "heady, hellacious, and phantasmagoric." Scott at the Open Book Society called it "one of the most perfect blends of word and pictures." Nathan Wilson called it "the latest installment in a catalog of award winning books."

The Divine was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here. Because of occasional swearing and a few scenes of graphic violence, I would recommend this book for readers mature enough to handle both.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem

Breath of Bones is a collection of a three issue limited series. The story focuses on Noah, a young man who we see as a slightly older soldier in a framing sequence. The main narrative focuses on him and his family during World War II. They live in a small, rural village and they all fear the advances of the Nazi German forces. One day, the younger, able-bodied men, including Noah's dad, decide they must join in the defense of their country and assemble to join the larger army. The town is then left populated with women, children, and older people. All is quiet, but tense, until the day a plane crashes nearby.
Inside is a British soldier, whom they rescue and give aid, but not far behind are Hitler's forces. Much fear is struck into the populace, and some want to send the British pilot away without sanctuary. Another debate arises whether to flee or to stay, hoping that either the Nazis don't show up or that they will not create conflict in the town. In the end, they do stay and the Nazis do show up. Noah's grandfather decides it's time he told his grandson some truths about his family and culture, and he is given the knowledge to create a golem to protect his people. What follows is a tale tinged with magic and hope in even the most dire circumstances. Most of the book is set in a time before the Nazis or the golem arrive, so there is a fair and good amount of character work, and I especially like how the relationship between Noah and his grandfather is developed.
In the end, even though I appreciate the character work, I am not sure what I feel about the story. It is revisionist in its scope, not in a way that is so disrespectful or irreverent as something like Inglourious Basterds, but it is a piece of convenient wish fulfillment. The fictional drama here may be diminished in comparison to real accounts of Nazi occupation, and I am not sure I quite buy the magical realism within, but what is exceptional in this book is the artwork created by Dave Wachter. His characters are well defined and full of affect. His pacing and storytelling are excellent, and the larger page size of this collection really features his exquisite line work and watercolor shading. This book contains a beautiful display of visual artistry.

The story in this book is by Steve Niles and Matt Santoro. Niles is known primarily as a horror writer, and his first major work was the comic book series 30 Days of Night, which was adapted into a major motion picture. Santoro is an actor, and as far as I can tell this is his only work in comics. Wachter has a number of comics credits, but is probably best known for the series Scar Tissue and The Guns of Shadow Valley. Niles and Wachter speak about their work on this book in this interview.

This series was well received, and it has been picked up as a property for development into a movie. The reviews about it I have read have been mostly celebratory. Gary Makries called it "amazing" and stated that he "cannot recommend this enough." Gregory Paul Silber was very impressed with the artwork, but in the end was disappointed by some story details, finding it "a bit problematic that there is not a single mention of Jews or Judaism throughout the story" and also troubled that no specific geographic setting is named. Kimberly summed up that if you are "a fan of great artwork and great storytelling, you cannot go wrong with Breath of Bones."

Breath of Bones was published by Dark Horse, and they provide a preview and more here.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures is an apt title for this book for two reasons, neither of which has to do with movies. It is about the effort of French museum workers to hide and protect great works of art (some are "moving pictures") from the Nazi occupation during World War II. This book follows the exploits of the curator Ila Gardner, a Canadian woman who decided to stay in Paris, where she is in charge of "third rate" works at the Louvre.

The main narrative involves her being interrogated by Rolf Hauptman, a Nazi officer in charge of tracking down and cataloging great works of art. To say that their discussions are politically charged is an understatement, but matters are further complicated because they also have some version of a romantic relationship. Ila has many methods to stand up for herself and also defend an important part of civilization against an overpowering enemy, and over the course of the book she proves quite resourceful. However, Hauptmann is not a two-dimensional villain nor a pushover himself, and the study of these two characters as they joust is fascinating.
As you can see, the art is relatively clean and simple yet complex. There is an excellent interplay between lights and darks that obscure people's faces at times but also set great atmosphere. Also, characters and settings are defined through negative space, which further abstracts the events of the book in a way that adds import and layers of meaning. The reader's job is to fill in those spaces, a task which is aided by copious flashbacks to various scenes from Ila's life. This book is intelligent, complex, non-chronological, and deals with some very serious subject matter. I found it very rewarding to read and re-read, but I feel because of its subject matter and presentation, it is best suited for mature, capable readers.
Moving Pictures is a collaboration between Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, a wife and husband who have worked on many comics over the years. Kathryn has also written multiple series for Marvel Comics, most notably Patsy Walker: Hellcat and Journey into Mystery. The Joe Shuster Award winning Stuart has drawn multiple series for both major comics companies and is the artist for the latest batch of Star Wars comic books. They speak more extensively about their work on Moving Pictures in this interview and also this one.

This book has received its share of praise and was nominated for the Stumptown and the Doug Wright Awards. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and wrote that "the Immonens keep the story spare and focused to allow the ambiguity of survival itself to become the drama." Rich Johnston wrote that there is "an energy on the page making the pictures work just as hard as the words." Seth T. Hahne called it "a fantastic little book."

Moving Pictures was published by Top Shelf Productions, and they have a preview and much more information about the book here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Last Man, Book 2: The Royal Cup

The first volume of this series ended with a cliffhanger, which is resolved here in dramatic and exciting fashion. The formerly overmatched Adrian finds the strength and ability to hold his own in the competition, and the motley duo finds themselves a measure of fame from their tournament exploits. I don't want to give too much away, but a lot happens in this book: success gives us some insight into these characters, a flirtation blossoms into some romantic episodes, and we learn a lot more about Richard Saldana and what a jerk he might actually be.
As you can see from the excerpt above, the action sequences are great, giving a clear sequence of events and also building up suspense and mystery. This artwork is emblematic of the story in this book as well. The plot is breath-takingly fast, with multiple revelations, mysteries uncovered, and other mysteries created. I don't know exactly where this series is going, but I am definitely along for the ride.

Like I noted in my review of book one, the three creators behind this book all come from different field: Balak is a noted animator who also does some digital comics work. Michaël Sanlaville is a video game designer, and Bastien Vivès is an award winning comics artist. All three creators speak more about this volume and where this series might be going in this series of interviews.

I have not seen many reviews of this book of yet, but the ones I have read are very positive. I find so much to agree with in Seth T. Hahne's take on the book, that it follows "in one of my favourite manga traditions by decimating what I had imagined was status quo. By the end of the volume, we realize that the last two volumes are mere prologue for what should prove to be a much larger, more satisfying story. And I am blisteringly excited to watch it unfold." Caro called the artwork "opulence given form."

The Royal Cup was published in the US by First Second, and they have a preview and much more here. Because there are more sexual situations in this book than the first, I would recommend it for older adolescents or readers mature enough to handle them.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Last Man: The Blog Tour!

The second volume of the Last Man series, The Royal Cup debuted in the US two days ago, and I am proud and fortunate enough to have conducted an e-interview with the books' creators after reading their first book. I hope that you enjoy our exchange below:

1.       I have read a little bit about how you plot out the book in a pretty informal way, but what comes first, the visuals or the words for the story? Does it change depending on the situation?
Haha, sounds like you're interviewing Bob Dylan or Nicky Minaj. "What comes first, the lyrics or the melody?" It's kind of a strange mix. We have the story landmarks settled, the big twists and where the characters have to be, but in between we let ourselves go: it can drawn by the will to suggest a particular scene, an emotion, a feeling, or the inspiration to draw a certain landscape... We pitch the idea or the scene at each other, like if we're telling ourselves stories by the campfire, trying to reach that "this is cool/scary/funny" reaction in the two guys in front of us. This is the cool thing when you've got three authors on this.  When you're on point, you knows this right away, it's a collective gut reaction. And then we just go with a loose description: Balak is shaping the scene and dialogue at the same time he is making the storyboard. The drawing, and actually the storytelling, how panels are flowing, calls for the writing, in the end. And when we have the final drawings, we go back to shape the dialogue some more. That's NOT how this is supposed to be, but that's how we do it, it keeps things fresh and exciting to us, and hopefully the reader.

2.       Are we going to learn more about Mr. Jansen? The guy is a mess!
Jansen is a good example of what we just talked about. In the very beginning, he was meant to be just “Adrian's teacher.” But then, when the scene was developed and drawn, he took a life on his own. Bastien decided: "let's make him madly in love with Marianne." He’s a big loser, the absolute counterpoint of Richard Aldana. And then he became much more than this in later books. It's like when they initially wrote Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was not supposed to be that big of a character, but when they saw James Masters on screen, they decided to give him more screen time, to eventually become everyone's favorite. In the end, the short answer is yes, you will learn more about Jansen. We love that character!

3.       Why does Richard Aldana seem smart about some things and clueless about others? Such as, why does he not remember the rules of the Games?
Richard is not lying when he is saying is not from the neighborhood. He's not from king valley, but  he know about king's valley... all this will be revealed in later books as well as in the TV animated series we're currently doing.

4.       After seeing the video game preview, I wonder will we see more tournament fights later in the series where the opponents are not all magic users?
The video game is a bit special, he is tied to Richard's past. We will see in book four a video game, and this is that video game you can play. Can't say too much without spoiling anything!

5.       What American comics are popular in France, if any?
You have lots of super heroes magazines translated in French, DC and Marvel, in every press shop. But the latest huge success is the Walking Dead comic books, it's a best-seller here. French are big fans of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, too, it's bigger than Peanuts here. You are very fortunate to live in France when you love comics, bande dessinée and manga. We have a lot of comic shops, selling comics from all around the world. That's not the case in all the other European countries.

And thus concludes our interview. Thank you so much, Gina, for setting this up, and also to the creators for their wonderful responses!

You can follow the blog tour by visiting this link.

Michaël Sanlaville
Bastien Vivès
My review of volume 2 will be out soon. The next installment in this exciting series comes out in October!